President Joe Biden nominated the former head of two federal science and engineering agencies to be his science adviser, who if confirmed by the Senate, will be the first woman, person of color and immigrant to hold that Cabinet-level position.
Biden nominated engineer and physicist Arati Prabhakar, who during the Obama administration directed the James Bond-like Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) which came up with the Internet and stealth aircraft, to the science adviser job, which also includes running the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Prabhakar helped kick-start work in DARPA that eventually led to the type of RNA vaccine used to develop shots for COVID-19. In the 1990s, starting at the age of 34, she was the first woman and youngest person to run the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
Prabhakar would take over after Biden’s initial science adviser, Eric Lander, resigned when a White House investigation found he bullied staff members amid complaints about how he treated co-workers. It was the first such resignation of the Biden administration. Lander had previously been criticized for downplaying the contributions of women in science. He would be replaced by Prabhakar, who was also the first woman to earn a doctorate in applied physics from Caltech, after getting a master’s and bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering.
“She clearly is very smart, articulate, a visionary who makes things happen,” said Trump science adviser Kelvin Droegenmeier, who said he didn’t know her personally but heard a talk of hers at the National Academy of Sciences “and was quite frankly blown away.”
Droegenmeier said Prabhakar’s “first and most important role is to restore trust and integrity at OSTP, which I have no doubt she can do.”
In nominating her, Biden called Prabhakar “a brilliant and highly respected engineer and applied physicist” who will help use science and technology to “solve our toughest challenges and make the impossible possible.” The job includes dealing with climate change, public health, defense, energy and technology issues.
Sudip Parikh, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the largest general science society, highlighted Prabhakar’s work at DARPA as something that “led to pioneering work on RNA technology underlying COVID-19 vaccines.”
Prabhakar immigrated to Chicago and then Texas with her family from New Delhi, India, when she was 3. After getting her PhD, Prabhakar worked for DARPA, later becoming the first person to run its microelectronics office. She then ran NIST, which deals in engineering standards. In between government gigs, she worked in Silicon Valley as an executive and venture capitalist and in 2019 she founded the research non-profit Actuate.
When Lander resigned earlier this year he was temporarily replaced by former National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins and Office of Science and Technology Policy deputy director Alondra Nelson. Nelson and other women have been head of the science and technology office on an acting basis before, but until Prabhakar none had been nominated for the permanent Senate-confirmed post.
Follow Seth Borenstein on Twitter at @borenbears